leadership

Hillary Clinton on overcoming defeat, and why we need more women at the table

Eloise Keating /

Hillary Clinton

Former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton speaks in Melbourne. Source: AAP Image/Joe Castro

How to do recover from a loss? How do you bounce back when the goal you have been working toward for years — the very thing you have staked your career on achieving — becomes unreachable? When someone else wins the race instead?

And what about if that loss happens in public, in front of millions of people in your own country and around the world?

Coming to terms with loss was one of the topics of discussion when former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed an audience of 5000 people in Melbourne earlier this month, as part of The Growth Faculty’s “Women World Changers” event.

Of course, the former First Lady’s loss in the 2016 US Presidential election to Donald Trump has been well-documented from every angle imaginable. Clinton herself has even offered her own account by way of her book, What Happened, which she was promoting during her visit to Australia.

But while the election loss was well within the political arena (and the culmination of a multitude of factors), Clinton offered up some anecdotes that we can all relate to, regardless of which side of the political fence we sit on.

Clinton said she is “still proud of the campaign we ran” and all of the people who supported it, but she admitted that, in the days and weeks after the election defeat, even getting out of bed was a feat.

“It was obviously difficult and I was asked rather frequently, ‘how did you even get out of bed?” she said.

“Yes, I’ll admit there were times when I was tempted just to pull the covers back over my head.”

Instead, Clinton said she turned to those everyday things that can keep anyone going during tough times.

“I spent time with friends and family and especially my two grandchildren,” she said.

“I read a lot, especially mystery novels — I like them because the bad guy usually gets it. I watched a lot of house and garden television, which seemed to always throw me into a frenzy of organising closets, which I did find quite gratifying.

“I played with our two dogs, went for long walks in the woods, did some yoga. I practised something called alternate nostril breathing, which I highly recommend, and yes, I had my fair share of chardonnay (including Australian chardonnay).”

Finally, though, Clinton decided to take action. She founded an organisation called Onward Together “to encourage the outpouring of activism and grassroots activities that we’re seeing in America now” in support of a range of issues, from women’s issues to jobs, affordable healthcare and protecting the environment. That organisation is now supporting election candidates across the US as they prepare for the midterm congressional elections in November.

“Everyone gets knocked down,” Clinton told the audience.

“What matters is whether you get back up and you keep going.

“That was a lesson that was instilled in me from my mother … she overcame quite a bit in her own life and she wanted to be sure that I was prepared for whatever would come my way.”

More women need a seat at the table

Clinton has long been an advocate for increasing women’s participation and visibility in leadership positions, especially in politics, and this formed a large part of what she spoke about on the night, as well as her Q&A session with former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard.

“The only way we’ll get sexism out of politics is to get more women into politics,” she said.

“It’s true in the United States and it’s true around the world.”

But Clinton wasn’t only talking about politics — her observations about how female leaders are viewed can also translate into the business arena.

“The research is pretty clear,” she said. “For men, likeability and professional success go hand-in-hand. In other words, the more successful a man becomes, the more people like him.

“But with women, it’s the exact opposite. The more professionally successful we are, the less people like us.

“And not only that, women are seen favourably when we advocate for others, but unfavourably when we advocate for ourselves.”

Clinton related these observations back to her own experience.

“Historically, people really like me, as Sally Fields would say, when I’m in a supporting role, serving as First Lady in the White House, serving the people of New York in the Senate, serving as a member of President Obama’s cabinet,” she said.

“But the minute that I, or any woman, stands up and says, ‘now I’d like a chance to lead’, that approval changes.”

Clinton said she “can’t think of a single woman” who doesn’t have a similar story to tell about how their ambition has been viewed by others.

“The stories may not reflect experiences on the world stage, but in those quiet places, at work, in the community, sometimes even in one’s family, there are challenges,” she said.

“And when that happens in politics, it can be very frustrating.”

But there’s still value in simply being there, she said.

“It can also be deeply rewarding. Because you know, just be being at the table, you’re bringing a perspective that might otherwise go overlooked,” she said.

“You’re there to advocate for equal pay, for women’s work, for more and affordable childcare, for the kinds of supports that families in this very complex, global economy more and more need.”

Things do need to change, said Clinton, but it’s not up to women alone to make that change happen.

“It’s not just a conversation between and among women, but also with men,” she said.

“Because we have to understand what it will take to bring about changes so that women are afforded the same opportunities to succeed as men, and we have to know how best to convey that to our own girls and boys.”

NOW READ: The statistic that shows there’s a very strong business case for female leaders

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Eloise Keating

Eloise Keating is the editor of SmartCompany. Previously, Eloise was news editor at Books+Publishing, the trade press for the Australian book industry.

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